The history of Skinny Puppy begins in the summer of 1983, when Cevin Key and Nivek Ohgr joined forces to create one the most respected industrial bands ever. Skinny Puppy's crushing combination of percussive keyboard and rhythm work and Ohgr's cryptic vocals stunned the underground independent music scene and quickly elevated them to cult status.
However, divisiveness between the band members centered around drug abuse; not necessarily used to inspire, but to block out the damaging effects of a damaged youth. Internal conflicts had always threatened to eat the band up from the inside. Ohgr had become increasingly isolated and departed, before, much to everyones horror, member Dwayne Goettel died from a drug overdose.
Thankfully, SP have returned- older and wiser - and with a new album, a new tour and a new perspective. Differences have been resolved and the band has delivered what is undoubtedly their most focused and accessible release to date, The Greater Wrong of the Right. Ohgr talks to Barcode about a remarkable band, a remarkable career and a remarkable comeback.
Was this a resurrection for Skinny Puppy or was it something that was always likely to happen eventually? It wasn’t necessarily likely to happen, but was I guess always something that was a possibility. It wasn’t until we did a show in Dresden in Germany that we kind of realised that there was a potential to get back together and work together; it was more about the interpersonal relationships than the idea of doing the band again. The idea to do Skinny Puppy again was always something that was probably a possibility based on timing and where the world was at. I think things changed when I left the country right before 9/11, I left on September 10th and went to Amsterdam and came back 2 months later to a totally different country, and so that kind of inspired me to start looking a bit more at the idea of doing this again.
The new album, The Greater Wrong Of The Right, is I think probably your best album to date. Do you feel the same? Well there’s been different periods of this band for me personally. The hardest thing for me was just the fact that a lot of the time I spent working on this project I was in a different state of mind and I was kinda living through a lot of things. This album was done more methodically and was done not so much in real time, it was done retrospectively and a bit more in a sense of trying to craft a record as opposed to trying to use it as a biography. It’s hard for me to say, because there’s a bit of a different sound to this record and we approached things in a different way. We definitely did that on purpose. Part of the flavour of Skinny Puppy is missing, but at the same time I think it’s a far more focused record.
And also, it’s a little bit more, I don’t like to use the word commercial, but a little bit more accessible. Was this deliberate? Well, I think it was natural more than deliberate. In a lot of ways we did approach it in the same way that we approached our first record. But we did always kind of move from the centre upwards, and we’re hoping to kind of have that opportunity again in a sense. In the same way that Remission, our first record, had certain pop elements, certain things that people could latch onto at that time period, I think maybe we’re trying to do that unconciously, or conciously, I don’t know (laughs).
The album doesn’t really seem to have the anger of previous Skinny Puppy releases. Is this more of a reflection of the band’s more positive current state of mind? Yeah, I think so. I think as well that there’s so much ground you can rake with that area before you either better get better, or think stuff it (laughs). I think in a lot ways to kind of go back and try and recreate that sort of a record, like Last Rights or Too Dark Park, especially Last Rights, which was something that we didn’t even really control because there was so much stuff going out of control at the time, if we planned to do that it would become more disingenous than if we actually did the record that we ended up doing, which is kind of an amalgam of where all of our projects were going anyway with the flavour of Skinny Puppy.
I mean the title itself, The Greater Wrong Of The Right, great title, it sounds quite political, is this a condemnation of America? It’s more of a condemnation than it is a political statement, in a sense that it does have an effect on the current political administration, which I do abhorr, that I think is appalling. I think that what has been going on with regards to the Bush family, and people associated with the Bush family, is absolutely disgusting and needs to be looked at, needs to be addressed, needs to be put out on paper as is, so that people can realise what they’re really paying for with their taxes. Beyond that, it more has to do with a condemnation of the way that I was raised culturally and more about the idea of the right, and being right and being altruistic and y’know doing the right thing for all of the countries in the world which ultimately has led us to where we are today – where were a minority that’s hated in a lot of ways.
Of course it’s something that everybody struggles to accept on a daily basis, how do you think we can escape this cycle? Well I think it’s an impossible route. Obviously I think that they’re gonna be trying to push the next wave of the automotive industry once they’ve lapped up the last bit of oil around the world. It’s all becoming very clear that all of these struggles are over oil. I think what they’ve realised is that the oil resources that they thought had a fifty-year reserve on have dwindled down to 17-30, and I think the reason that we're seeing such an upheavel in our righteousness is the fact that we have to secure, apparently we have to secure, the last bit of oil rights and resources. I think the crux of the issue is water rights, sea rights, food rights, all of these things are happening. I mean, they’re intimating the fact there’s going to be drought, there’s gonna be water problems, there’s going to be all sorts of problems in America. It’s just a huge desensitization project in all ways.
More and more musicians are being energised into writing about these things. Being a Canadian citizen do you feel some sort of resposibility? Err, yeah. I feel a responsibility speaking for the West and growing up in a world where everything was basically handed to me on a silver spoon. I think Canada is in some ways a much more open country than America, and I’ve seen that especially in the last ten years. But I feel just as responsible, I feel just as useless and just as impotent as anybody else. I don’t know how to affect change. I don’t feel like, as a musician, that I really have much to say about politics, but I have kinda of an unique understanding of what I think is right and wrong, and what I see as being right and wrong. And although it’s just subjective, it all comes down to that in the end, part of me kinda feels like, yeah I need to do this and it’s important and it has a meaning, and the other part of me thinks it’s just gonna get washed away in the sea of information above that.
Well, as far as the album’s concerned, I understand you’ve done a video for one of the tracks, Pro-test. Has this actually been released yet? It hasn’t been released, we’re working on it. The guy who’s doing the video is doing all of our backing films for the live show, he’s playing guitar with us, but he’s been working on that so we’re delivering it this week. It’s basically taking an abstract to what people would expect. We’re doing something with breakdancers and things like that. It has somewhat of a political overtone to it, but were also trying to cross-culturise the music a little bit. We also met this troop of dancers called Krumpers, it’s a new form of breakdancing that kind of uses a lot of Afrikan. The best way I can describe it is that it’s a black dance form of speaking in tongues. It’s so fucking tribal and so intense and so explosive. I’ve never seen anything like it before.
Wasn’t Bill Leeb (Front Line Assembly & Delerium) originally in Skinny Puppy, was he one of the original members? He was.
Obviously he’s moved on to very different things now. Yeah (laughs).
Are you aware of what he’s done with Delerium and stuff like that? I am.
How do you feel about that? I dunno, I think it’s kinda great for him that he’s done that stuff and he’s done well with it. It’s not really my particular taste in music or whatever. I see it as being something that I don’t wanna pursue. Obviously he wanted to have a hit record I guess, so.
It was more by luck than anything. I think it was having Sarah McLachlan on there. That part really helped that project as well.
So within Skinny Puppy, there’s always been this sort of strong drug culture that everybody knows about. Was it sort of a challenge to write an album without the aid of substances? I’ve like done two single records without using drugs (W.E.L.T), so this record was kind of an extension of that. That part of it was pretty easy, and actually not doing drugs is pretty easy, because, ultimately, at this point in my life my energy level would just diminish completely if I was to do that. Y’now, obviously I wanna try and get through and do all these shows in the best state of mind possible and that’s just not really an option anymore unfortunately.
Is there still that necessary conflict and friction within the band, or have most of these issues now been resolved? We have moments when we talk about things, as opposed to this kind of way of stewing, staring at eachother with knives. And that whole passive-aggressive thing has gone. Obviously we still have moments, for example, I’ll look at Cevin, and don’t think I’m meaning something that I’m totally not, but we have those moments when we question eachother. But there hasn’t been any major arguments about direction, or about what we’re doing or what the plan is. We’re far more supportive of eachother, because ultimately things work a lot smoother when they’re like that. I think you see that as you get older (laughs).
It’s amazing that Skinny Puppy is over 20 years old. I think within that, and all the acrimony, we both realised that a lot of the stuff that we were dealing with was basically dervied from a lot of things in our childhood that we hadn’t dealt with at the time. We were at that ripe age where all of that stuff was coming to the surface but we didn’t know where it was coming from so we pointed the guns at eachother. I think we both sat down and talked about silly things and asked what was that all about and saw it for what it is. There was two, y’know, pseudo-adults that were trying to deal with a lot of emotional baggage and ended up using eachother as the punching bags.
Obviously you have questioned yourself and why you’ve had this need to depend on drugs, etc. Have you ever had some sort of therapy? Oh yeah, oh yeah. I’ve got a person I’ve gone to see for about three years and so I think that’s maybe one of the factors that’s really put a lot of this in perspective and has gotten me away from needing to self medicate. And that goes right back to when I was very young. So yeah, there’s a lot of issues within that that’s kind of flailing around and has been kind of reorganised, so I think that takes a lot of the pressure away fom that sort of activity (laughs).
It’s funny in away isn’t it, because if you didn’t have that background then maybe Skinny Puppy wouldn’t have even existed? No, no, I mean that’s the beauty of this. One of the great gifts is that it’s a vehichle to really explore all of those dark sides of your personality in your head. Had I not had this vehicle to kind of wander around in the muck I wouldn’t be where I am right now. And that’s something I look back on and is a really great thing, but the amount of pain that I went through during that time period I wish I didn’t have to experience. I wish there was a bypass for that, because that I was pretty uncomfortable for a lot of the years of Skinny Puppy, it was all pretty real (laughs). It wasn’t an act. I think the hardest thing for me was just trying to go, 'ok, well that wasn’t an act, erm, now it’s entertainment', because it is entertainment in which I do something that has some sort of thought provoking side to it, and I’m not living it in the same way that I was then. And instead of it letting it drain me of energy I’m trying to let the energy that it has create itself through me and it’s interesting. So, yeah, on one hand, absolutely, if I hadn’t have been so fucked up I wouldn’t be where I am now, but the trick always was to find some light at the end of the tunnel. The whole thing within Skinny Puppy was to find light at the end of the tunnel and find a happy ending.
But Skinny Puppy have always had this slightly theatrical element anyway, especially live haven’t you? So I suppose it’s not too difficult for you to make that slight transition? Yeah, it’s very natural for me actually, I shouldn’t even question it, because it’s just there. It’s totally there. In fact, last night, we did five shows in a row, ending in our far biggest show in Philadelphia, and for some reason I was just angry all day. I didn’t feel like I was but everybody who came up to me was like, what the fuck was wrong with you? I hurt a lot of peoples feelings, I got really angry on stage.
Maybe that’s just the atmosphere of the venue? Yeah, whatever it was, theatres are sometimes circumvented by a real emotion and at times it’s just purely feeder and it’s a bit of an endurance test. I kind of use all of those things, the negative and the strain and the drain, and whatever it is that’s going in in the performance to kind of enhance it.
I suppose you get a feel off an audience as well don’t you? You get a huge charge off an audience and it changes every day. I think that kind of one of the most schizophrenic, manic depressive, bi-polar things about performing, is just the fact that there’s constantly a different room, a different sound and a different feel from an audience. It’s something that I’ve gotten used to, and it used to affect me a lot more when I was younger, but it's something you gotta tap into or you get zapped by (laughs).
As I was saying before, 20 years in the industry. Do you feel old or do you still feel fresh and vibrant and wanting to make music more than ever? Well I mean I still wanna make music, absolutely. I never did feel that young because even when I was 23, 24, I was doing so many drugs that the energy levels are about the same at this point. Not that I wake up with the same hangovers that I did before or the need to go and get drugs, which is a lot better. But there’s definitely a mindset that it’s different, I can’t really put a finger on what it is, but it feels a bit more stable in the sense that it is a career I guess, although there’s no promises and never has been. I can’t define it, I find I am timeless sometimes and sometimes look in the mirror and I feel very old (laughs).
Having been in the industry for so long, what’s your reaction to how it’s changed, and the Internet and file sharing activity? Well I think it’s a bit of a struggle for younger musicians now. It’s probably a lot more difficult for somebody deciding how they’re going to approach their musical career and what they’re going to choose as being their mode of expression, how commercial they are. There’s not much development going on with artists right now. I think you shoot your load out the gate then you try to recreate it over and over again, and the days when artists were allowed to go off the deep end and make that record that was either a gem or complete shit, those days are gone, and that’s kinda sad because there was a lot of gems that kind of appeared out of those, completely contrary to what was expected. I think file sharing has affected our sales, but then we have issues with our record company. I think the whole business in general is shit and I wouldn’t advise anybody to go into this as a career (laughs).
No, under the current climate have you noticed the effect of consumer behaviour on your bank balance? Yeah, exactly, and then beyond that, like i’m saying, you’re kind of forced into this mindset of having to create something that maybe you don’t want to. We’ve been lucky in a sense that we’ve sidestepped that and we’ve been able to do what we wanted to do, but at the same time I can see younger bands having a real problem with trying to be who they are in this climate. And again, I think this is a condemnation on the arts and on expression on this country when commerce and capitalism dictate the mode of expression and it almost becomes a neo, capitalist facism and squashing down of expression. But no-one wants to have any kind of sign of dissent, because that’s not patriotic and not nationalistic or whatever those words are intermixed.
But you’ll always have people that go against that culture, there always will be that underground of people expressing themselves. Yeah, but they’re being marginalised, more and more so, unfortunately.
Finding it harder to find a voice for them? I think so. I mean look at the punk scene, it’s become just so assimilated. It’s so garden party, teenage afterschool, bring a book and read. It isn’t about dissent and it’s not about revolution, it’s not even about evolution anymore, it’s all about something that fits into the mindset of the time and it’s discarded. It’s off the rack dissent in a way and it’s just so light and so tame, and there’s nothing really being questioned, there’s nothing really being put out there and there’s nothing really being challenged in any way. I can’t think of one musical genre that’s really doing that right now.
Even the word ‘Alternative’ is sort of meaningless now isn’t it? Absolutely.
I heard recently that Tower Records has gone under. I think they’re almost going under. Which is a big chain, an independent record store. I think what’s gonna happen is once movies start being downloaded that’s when legislation’s going to came in. It may affect file sharing with records, but I think file sizes of musicians are too small. And so that’s always gonna be traded. It’s really a polluted expression with music in a lot of ways, I think it’s opened up a lot of things for some people, but again the problem with the culture’s that when JFK was shot there was one shooter, one story, one line of prosecution and it was accepted by all for however many years, even though the conspiracy was wide open on it. And now they’ve realised that if you inundate people with so much information they just shut down and accept the easiest and most digestable piece of information they can. And that’s the route, it’s not 1984, it’s very much a neo-brave new world. We’re amusing ourselves to death basically. There’s so much placebo-esque stuff out there we can just chew on over and over again that real issues just don’t mean anything to us anymore.
Do you read a lot of books on philosophical subjects? A little bit, as much as I can digest and understand (laughs).
I’ve often found Indian philosophy to be the most challenging y’know? Your’e talking about like Buddhism and stuff? And taoism. That’s kind of the most interesting way of looking at life I think, because those parabels and those riddles kind of change as your life goes on and adapt to you, and I enjoy that stuff.
Ok, so you’re halfway through this tour at the moment? How many dates have you done so far and how has it been received? Err, we’ve done 12 in the US. We’ve sold every one out. Yeah, we sold out two shows in New York and got really good reviews, the first time we’ve gotten such good reviews there. We’ve had a few drawbacks in our crew, we’ve lost a couple of crew members to injuries and some family problems, but beyond that it’s holding itself together. Yeah, onward and forward.
And for those who have yet to come and watch you, what can they expect on the pyrotechnics front? Well, we can’t do pyrotechnics anymore unfortunately (laughs), because of all the problems that were here, I’m not sure whether it’s the same in Europe, or England. It’s very difficult to do anything with fire here (laughs).
Wasn’t there that club that burnt down? Yeah, there was that club that burned, and two days later there was a panic at some black club somewhere where a bunch of people got crushed. So that day and age has gone, it’s really hard to make messes anymore (laughs).
But the fake blood’s still going isn’t it? Yeah, of course.
Is that pig's blood or chemicals? No, I’ve never used real blood. I’ve thought about, I’ve used it once. If you use it over and over again it gets very smelly fast. So it’s all theatrical and mud.
Do you actually enjoy getting all messed up? No I don’t actually, but it’s a job and I have to do it (laughs). No, I actually don’t mind it, it actually, in a lot of ways, helps to enable the character and the whole thing gel together for me. I don’t like coming off stage, I’ll put it that way, I don’t like the aftermath. Everybody else is sitting around all clean, smoking a joint or whatever, having a drink, and I have to go back to the hotel and soak. Every fucking night! (laughs).
This character that you portraty on stage, is that you, or something or somebody that you’re portraying? That’s me. That’s definitely an extension of me. It’s all my shortcomings and it marks a point in my life when I was out of control and it will always kind of be that persona. It’s very much a part of me that I think I missed using for the number of years I wasn't touring with this band. Because it allows you to discharge a lot of emotion and a lot of energy and stuff like that. I don’t wanna go to a character thinking I’m a character actor, it’s very much something that unfortunately I’m all too used to, and I’ve been there so many times before. It has a lot to do with just being in Skinny Puppy I think.
Are there more samples going on now, is Cevin using a laptop. No, we’ve actually got a huge set up. We’re using a really big rear projection screen and a bunch of television monitors, I don’t know whether we’re bringing them over to England and Europe. Cevin’s got a huge rack of effects and keyboards, and Justin’s got his drum kit and we have a guitar player. I think the sound dynamically is the best we’ve ever sounded. We’re playing the songs a lot better than we’ve ever played before; the band sounds amazing, really good sonically. And then we’re actually pairing back a bit on the vocal effects to a certain degree, so the vocal becomes a bit raw-er. So it sounds really good and I’m really happy with how we sound.
So how many more dates are you doing in America? Tonight we’re doing Atlanta, then New Orleans, Houston, Denver, then move back to Los Angeles for three shows. And then we take two days off and come across to Amsterdam, starting with Paris, and Arvika, then the Zillo Festival and a festival in Belgium and then I think we’re coming across to London at that point.
I heard there might be a live DVD of the tour, is that likely to happen? Yeah, I think it is. All that’s being worked out right now. We’re probably not going to start actually working on it until the second leg of this tour. We’re talking about going out with Ministry on the second leg of the tour. AI (Jorgensen) was out on Sunday or Monday in New York, he played with us on the set, so we kinda hooked up and had some drinks and talked about doing this whole big spectacle in the Fall.
Do you ever envy the success of bands like Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson, who are perhaps borrowing ideas off you and making a fortune out of it? Yeah, I don’t care. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. I know Marilyn stole an idea of mine visually with these stilts, and this idea of this character on stilts. Which I find kinda funny.
Have you ever met Marilyn Manson? No I’ve never met him actually.
He seems quite an intelligent, articulate person actually. He does, absolutely. I’ve heard some stories about how he treats people. I’m not a rock star like that and would never want to be. I’ve heard stories from crew people on how treats people, and I never though that that was true - I always thought he was really kind of a nice, quiet person until I heard this from people that have actually worked with me. I don’t miss having so much power that you become kind of a meglomaniac, or you start to treat people that are working for you badly. I’ve never been that kind of person and would never want to be that kind of person. I think people get shocked when I give them a dirty look, like I was saying the other day, and everybody was completely like, "what is wrong with you?" (laughs). With regards to the success part, part of the reason why we didn’t do what we needed to do at a certain time was, in a way, our own fault. And I can’t really slight somebody else. You can see conspiracies in anything, so I’d rather not even comment on it because it’s just the way things went down, and we take responsibility for our own lives and our own path. We made some decisions and we chose not to go in a certain direction for a reason and we kept going to the very end, farther and farther from the center, whereas those bands took something that was a bit abstract and moved it more to a commercial possibility and found something within there.
But even in your more lucid moments, would you have actually taken that commercial route? No.
So it wouldn’t have made any difference. No (laughs). It wasn’t the intention of this band to do that at all. All three of us at the time, from album to album, wanted to do something different and wanted to try and take it farther away from where we started, and I think that’s still our ideology within this. It makes it fun for us.
Well I do love the new album, it appears to be consistently good all the way through. Thank you very much.
Are there any other artists that you enjoy listening to at the moment at all? Well my favourite, my bubblegum favourite band right now (laughs), that’ll I go out and buy everything from is Boards Of Canada. That’s one of my favourite pet projects now, kind of a perfect blending of happy, sad, childish and very dark synthetic sounds, so beautifully layered. The sound design is beautiful. I like Funki Porcini. I’m constantly getting turned on to new music that I like.
Ok, I’ve only got one more question. I heard a rumour that your head comes out of joint? (Cracks up laughing) My head comes out of joint!
I read that somebody fell on you when you were young, is there any truth in that? Yes, that’s very true. I like have a compression injury from when I was 17, from someone landing on my hand when I was playing football and still in high school. This huge kid landed on my head and it did pop out of… it didn’t pop out of joint thank god, but it was a huge pop and since that time I’ve had nothing but problems. I’ve kind of come to a point where, through yoga, and through a bunch of things, and, believe it or not, stopping doing drugs... I mean, y’know what drugs do to your body as far as aches and pains, you’d think it would like calm them, but it really just exacerbates them.
I would imagine it completely suppresses your immune system. Absolutely, so there was no healing that went on. Believe it or not, It wasn't until I was about 39 and I found yoga that I actually got control of the pain of injury and stuff like that. But no, my head never pops out of joint (laughs).
It would be quite a good stage act. That would be amazing, I would use it too. If I could do that it would be amazing.
Skinny Puppy interview, Barcode 2004 ©
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